Kevin Durant's anti-media outburst over the weekend was just the latest plot point in what's developing into a real main streak for the formerly soft-spoken superstar. We've watched on from the edge of our seats as this new Durant engages in delightfully profane chirping, beefs with writers, philosophical Twitter tangents, new levels of haughtiness, and in general, bad mother****er-osity.
Durant's heel turn hasn't come alone. This year's Thunder exudes a materially different atmosphere than squads of years past. Reggie Jackson has been a frictional presence in the locker room as he toils in a bench role he doesn't want during a contract year that has only compelled him to press the issue on the court. That dynamic has gotten even more tenuous after the January acquisition of Dion Waiters – another player with a history of locker room conflict – to be the de facto sixth man. Even Russell Westbrook, who we've never known to be particularly forthcoming, has taken it to a new level with Marshawn Lynchian interview hijinks.
This isn't to cast the Thunder as a bunch of malcontents. On the contrary, they seem as determined to win as ever. However, we're witnessing that passion form edge this season.
Injuries raged through the roster in the first few weeks of the season, cutting the roster down to six healthy bodies at one point, and returning to full health has been a struggle for a team that still remains outside of the playoffs as lingering issues nagging Durant's foot led into a broken hand for Steven Adams. In this season where so much has gone astray from the plan, tempers are running short.
Even after winning five of their last six leading into the All-Star break, there's still a feeling of uncertainty dogging the Thunder on face value. Trade speculation and the usual ardor surrounding Scott Brooks' job security hang around as the bitter flavor of the team's 7-7 January proves hard to wash away. The February success helps, but that it comes directly after the team lost four of their last five in January clouds the takeaway some. How good this team is and whether or not it's good enough against today's sexier West behemoths remain open for discussion at large.
Which is why it's time to dispel some of the doubt. The Thunder aren't a pretty offense under Brooks, and when either Durant or Westbrook is off his game or hurt (as was often the case in January), it's harder for them to win. But the former is an issue rooted in aesthetics, and the latter is a byproduct of building such a top-heavy team – it'll be harder to doubt them in playoffs.
Your starting lineup is a good one
How's this factoid to wipe away yours concerns: the Thunder's three-man core of Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka have a net rating of 10.6 in 590 minutes this season. Rest assured, those guys are still elite.
Durant ranks in the 93rd percentile of points per possession as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, and Westbrook ranks in the 71st. The Thunder rank third league-wide in P&R ball-handler efficiency – important with that as the crux of their largely vanilla offense, which lacks the movement and precision passing that most of the league's other best offenses have adopted. Since Westbrook returned from injury on November 28th, the team ranks 9th in offensive rating, a mark not close to the highs in efficiency that the Thunder have reached before, but one that still signifies the beginning of a slow return to peak form.
Much has been made of Ibaka's offense trending out to the 3-point line, but he was never much of an inside presence and the Thunder won't miss the offensive rebounds with Adams replacing Kendrick Perkins as the starter in the middle. Instead, I would be more concerned that Ibaka's shooting percentage from the 16 feet to 3-point line range has dipped to a pedestrian 38.1%, down significantly from his career average of 44.4%. That spans the difference between elite and average, a noticeable drop-off for a guy who (still) lives in midrange and pick-and-pop scenarios. But the 3-point shooting, coming at a 38.9% rate this season, is nice.
Westbrook has shown a new tendency this season to run the ball all the way up the court against unset defenses and post up a (usually weaker) guard. Look at the predicament facing Ibaka's man here: stay with Ibaka, or double down and help the 5'11" Ty Lawson?
Ibaka expanding his range allows the Thunder to hide non-shooters on the weak-side. Adams, whose post game from the preseason didn't make the jump into the regular season, has survived on baseline cuts when his man helps off him to contain a drive. Roberson has been the face of non-shooter concerns for the Thunder – his 3-point shot has improved in the new year (he's 9-of-24 from deep in 2015), but he's still trigger-shy and teams don't show him a single iota of respect.
There have been concerns that teams will scheme him off the court in the playoffs, helping off him liberally to stack pressure on Durant and Westbrook. Even if his new 3-point shot, which the team has worked hard to improve, disappears again by the playoffs, I don't buy that Roberson will be unplayable. Ibaka's newfound 3-point shooting gives the Thunder some leeway with Roberson, and he's displayed cutting smarts that are crucial for the offensive survival of any non-shooter (hello, Tony Allen). He's long, strong and explosive, all traits of a dominant finisher.
Look at this play: the moment Quincy Pondexter steps away to contain the roll, Roberson is dashing at the rim and skying for the lob.
Roberson tidies up fast breaks on swoop-ins, chips in on the boards and has blossomed into one of the game's very best wing stoppers. He'll never be a positive on offense, but he's doing a great job of skewing his impact on that end towards neutral. After Brooks experimented with giving some of Roberson's minutes to Waiters (more on him later), he's mostly given up on that and resumed playing Roberson for twenty-plus minutes a game. No surprise – in his second year of the league, Roberson has already become a top-5 perimeter defender.
The when-healthy starting lineup of Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka, Adams and Roberson has had a 13.4 net rating in 249 minutes this season, with elite output on both ends. With the reminder that Durant and Westbrook are playing angry this season to make up for lost time at the beginning of the season, you can shelve away most of the superficial concern with this unit. The four-of-five losing streak at the end of January came as Durant was dealing with nagging injuries that eventually sidelined him for four games, and it may be a fair bet that had Westbrook not expended so much energy in his torrid romp through December when Durant was initially getting right, perhaps he would've been better equipped to carry the Thunder through that late January stretch.
Let's figure out Reggie and Dion, top dogs of the bench
Here's where we get to the topic of back-up options – failsafes for when Durant and Westbrook do go awry. It's a delicate matter for any team with such a top-heavy construction, and we've seen the Thunder exposed when their core gets injured (which we've seen too much of lately). The Thunder have long relied upon cheaper guys on rookie contracts to provide that stabilizing production: three years of James Harden becoming a Kevin Martin becoming Reggie Jackson.
Photo credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
That formula was jeopardized this season. If the Thunder have formed edge this season, then Jackson has been sandpaper. Chasing a payday in the coming summer, Jackson morphed into a get-mine hunter eager to move his offense out to the perimeter despite what should've been discouraging percentages away from the rim.
The Thunder felt compelled to trade a first-rounder for Waiters, a move that looks more and more misguided with every 4-of-12 clunker. Whatever it was that the Thunder saw in him, it definitely wasn't the guy shooting 38.3% on 11 attempts per game that they have now, generating an awkward depth chart standoff rifting between Jackson and Waiters.
Weirdly, Waiters didn't really have to earn his minutes. He just sort of waltzed into them, playing 22 minutes in his first game with the team and breaking the 30 minute threshold by his third appearance. His play hasn't justified the minutes – you can see the outline of an NBA scorer when he's carving into the lane, finishing through contact and knocking down difficult jumpers. Mostly though, his best games come from making bad shots.
The dynamic between Jackson and Waiters is one of begrudging acceptance, like roommates that don't much like each other but have to live together. The ball doesn't naturally move between two such ball-dominant players, and the newcomer has already usurped the role that wasn't good enough for the incumbent. Waiters is playing 27.0 minutes off the bench for the Thunder, fourth on the team behind its three-man core since the trade and a full seven minutes over what Jackson has played in that time.
They often play together when Brooks elects to rest his stars, but rarely do so competently. Jackson is fourth among players Waiters plays with most, but when they share the floor, the team's offensive rating plummets to 98.6. For context, the 29th-ranked Charlotte Hornets' offensive rating for the season is 100.2. Both players end roughly a quarter of the team's possessions each when they're on the floor (including time with Durant and/or Westbrook) and don't cleanly facilitate offense.
Offense with these two together usually comes down to letting them take turns running pick-and-rolls until somebody throws up a shot. That's not unlike what Durant and Westbrook often do, but Jackson and Waiters are definitively not Durant and Westbrook. These guys love the stepback long two, weapon of choice for gunners everywhere:
Jackson and Waiters do have occasional offensive outbursts, and come playoff time, one hopes the bad can be corralled in for more of the good. If the Thunder can juice enough consistent scoring production out of their reserves to spell and support Durant and Westbrook, then they'll be looking real good. The jury remains out on that front.
In want of an upgrade?
The Thunder have reportedly been active on the phones in advance of Thursday's trade deadline. First round picks are the preferred form of currency in the league these days, and the Thunder already traded one to the New York Knicks in the deal that landed them Waiters. The opportunity cost rankles, but they could survive trading another first-rounder this season. Ideally, they'll shop the likes of Kendrick Perkins, Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones with Jackson, who's set to hit free agency in the summer, as a swing piece to strike a deal.
It's easy to talk about the Thunder's lack of post scoring as an area to address, but as long as they have Durant and Westbrook to prop up the offense, the way the points come won't be a concern. Instead, they need ancillary support, which Jackson and Waiters haven't proved they can reliably provide enough of.
Still, don't expect Jackson to be moved just because his contract is up in the summer. The Thunder may choose to part ways in the offseason when he draws eight-figure offers – it'll be a tight fit under the tax line, and other avenues may prove more cost-effective. Jackson can't carry a second unit offense alone, and his shot selection isn't pretty when defenses are focused on him as the tip of the spear. You'd like to see fewer jumpers, but pick-and-roll coverages that sag on him reduce his options.
Here's the 'but': lineups that plug Jackson in along Durant or Westbrook chug along freely – there's enough on-ball dynamism there to create defensive scrambles. When he gets in the lane, Jackson has a tidy assortment of nifty float shots aided by his contorting athleticism. Maybe the answer is just for Brooks to do a better job staggering his rotations so that at least one of Durant or Westbrook are on the floor more often, which seems sensical enough. Shot-creators better than Jackson are rare in the trade market, and most of them cost at least one first-rounder to acquire.
The Thunder will do their due diligence in the trade market all the same. For a small market team that hasn't been able to add sexy free agents in the past, now is a good time to make a bold "go for it" move, even if it means taking the plunge into the tax. The Denver Nuggets are charging a king's ransom for Wilson Chandler and Arron Afflalo, and the Brooklyn Nets' Brook Lopez decision remains cloudy. The Thunder sit about $2 million over the luxury tax threshold today, and if they don't strike a deal that sends them any deeper, they might as well make a minor move to go back under.
Very little has felt right about this season, and there is more and more urgency by the day. It's easy to criticize an aesthetically displeasing team (when the stars aren't going nova), and there have been real bumps in the road, some of which remain concerns going forward. But they all mask the fact that the Thunder have been DAMN. GOOD.
Durant and Westbrook are still greats in the league and have proven it again. Ibaka still anchors a dominant (and well-designed) defense, and Roberson and Adams have burst on to the scene as rookie contract guys that have provided much-needed bang-for-buck production. The injuries have played poltergeist around this team all season long, and you'd be lying if you said you hadn't been seriously worried about the state of the team at some point in the season – I have columns fraught with pessimism that never saw the light of day and look like grave overreactions now.
But this team has heard the criticism at large and they're too proud to forget it. A gruesome start to the season has led to a frustrated Thunder squad doling out their wrath on the rest of their league. Even as the injury bug continues to try and rock the boat, the Thunder aren't in a bad place to kick off the last stretch of the regular season.
The scary part now: after the All-Star break, they'll be coming out refreshed and angry.